By definition, the fact that the development of the tar-sands is largely out of the hands of Canadians means it doesn't matter what side of the issue he's on. So let him pander. Its harmless and might help win a seat or two out West (though not in Alberta).I agree, that what ultimately happens with the tar sands is largely out of Canada's hands. Couple that fact, with the simple reality that the Alberta government will decide, no federal party can reasonably think it can "shutdown" the tar sands, it just doesn't work this way, the nature of Canadian federalism and international economics suggest otherwise. In other words, Ignatieff's position isn't irrelevant, today and now, but it isn't exactly powerful in practice either. So, with that in mind, you can reasonably arrive at the "harmless" conclusion, right?
That conclusion assumes no negative political fallout from such a stance. The Liberals need to appeal to the west, defending the tar sands could actually help their credibility and bring some new support, in a region of the country where it's desperately needed. However, that is a view in isolation, that doesn't entertain the other dynamics, dynamics which question the "harmless" line.
Today in Question Period, it was quite telling to see Gilles Duceppe rise and instantly refer to the National Geographic piece. In both questions, Duceppe lumped the Conservatives and Liberals together as tar sands apologists. The next question went to Bloc MP Bernard Bigras, who again attempted to connect the Liberals to the Conservatives on the tar sands. Bigras went further, referring to Ignatieff as an oil sands lobbyist. Clearly, the Bloc strategy is to pounce on Ignatieff's comments and undermine his credibility on the environment file. Additionally, there is much for the Bloc to gain, by providing further evidence of a Con/Lib pseudo "coalition". And, there's the rub.
I believe, despite the criticisms from the other opposition parties, that the Liberals received something of a "pass" with voters in supporting the Conservative budget. I don't want to rehash all the arguments, as far as I'm concerned public opinion is a slam dunk, the media was largely sympathetic and the Liberals emerged unscathed, Ignatieff faired quite well, through the whole debate. I also believe the "probation" strategy is a good one, although each successive period that goes by, brings a risk that a negative narrative can take root. With that in mind, let me return to the Bloc argument today.
If the Liberal opponents can introduce other policy areas of convergence, beyond the budget vote, to show that in reality the Liberals are largely "the same" as the Conservatives, then you start to see a pattern, a pattern which is problematic. Look, the Liberals supported the Conservatives on the budget, evidence of similarity in foreign affairs, and now we see the same rhetoric on the environment. The reason the Bloc pounced, which I predicted yesterday, is because they see the tar sands stance as a way to show Ignatieff is out of step with Quebecers on the environment, don't look to him as an alternative to Harper, because he's the same. When one starts to look at a REALISTIC electoral map, you begin to see the potential backlash for the Liberals, and the notion of "harmless" begins to unravel. Is it really sound strategy to mimic Jim Prentice, with the best case scenario being a couple of seats, when you give opponents ammunition on more fertile electoral ground? Pretty risky stuff, if you ask me.
In fairness to Michael, he also made these comments yesterday:
We are where we are. We've got to clean it up and we've got to make it a sustainable place to work and live not only for the Aboriginal populations there but for the workers who live there. My concern is that at the moment it's barely environmentally sustainable and it's barely socially sustainable. The Conservative government has done nothing about this. We need to move forward.
What I'm arguing, isn't a complete retreat on the tar sands, because I recognize regional sensitivities, not to mention economic realities. However, Ignatieff needs to stress more of the above, his defence or courtship must demonstrate a balance. Not only will this play better in other parts of the country, but it should play within his target audience. Many, many Albertans are also concerned, so a strategy that recognizes, but also points to Conservative failure, one that presents a clear path to reconcile, has just as much political advantage than simply projecting unequivocal support.
Part of me sees the Ignatieff strategy to date as merely laying the foundation, building a sense of trust, which is the first step in this process. However, that's largely speculation on my part, a fact which is somewhat concerning. While it might not necessarily matter, and decisions made in Washington will determine our path, that doesn't mean we cede any moral ground, because then we don't really stand for anything, practicalities aside. There is a political downside, which means Ignatieff really needs to articulate a balance, he needs to speak frankly, because pandering alone will alienate. The Liberals are fine on the budget, but the more areas of convergence, the more you give credibility to counter narratives, a fact which shouldn't be lost on anyone.